Podcast • January 13, 2011

Mohammed Hanif’s Af-Pak: A Case of Exploding Absurdities

Somebody said: if you’re an intelligent Islamic militant and you had a choice: to take over either Afghanistan or Pakistan, what would you do? You would take over Pakistan, obviously. Click to listen to Chris’ ...

Somebody said: if you’re an intelligent Islamic militant and you had a choice: to take over either Afghanistan or Pakistan, what would you do? You would take over Pakistan, obviously.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Hanif (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Mohammed Hanif, the Pakistani novelist, is observing from Karachi that “even the believers” don’t believe in the war in Afghanistan anymore. No statement of purpose passes the “you’ve got to be kidding” test — not the US professions about stabilizing the region, not the Pakistani Army’s mission to defend its country. Pakistan’s tribal areas that were peaceful before the war have been devastated. The future is disappearing. Certain dark absurdities underlying Pakistan’s situation, underlying Mohammed Hanif’s “insanely brilliant” novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, are chasing their own tails.

On January 4 this year Salmaan Taseer, the rich, connected governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated in broad daylight in a public market in Islamabad. The shooting eerily prefigured by four days our made-in-America madness in Tucson, but it was more horrifying by many measures. Taseer took 26 rounds of sub-machinegun fire from one of his own guards before the rest of his security detail intervened. Prominent mullahs in Pakistan have celebrated the murder and promised vengeance on Taseer’s funeral goers. At issue, so to speak, was Taseer’s enthusiasm for repealing an Anti-Blasphemy law — an old statute that in today’s fervor has enabled religious prosecutions and deadly personal fatwas on farcical grounds. (You can be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan for discarding a salesman’s business card — if the salesman, like so many of his countrymen, bears the name Mohammed.)

We are drawing again on a novelist’s gift for figure and ground, the big contexts of war and faith, news and nationhood, for tragic jokes.

MH: I think the basic kind of crisis that we are going through is that somehow a large majority of people are convinced that their faith is under attack. Now, how can their faith be under attack if 98 percent of people who live in this country are faithful? What has happened is that this environment, these perpetual wars that we’ve been involved with, have somehow convinced our people…

We’ve never even begun to deal with the reasons for which this country was created, which was that there should be some kind of economic and social justice for the Muslim minority in these parts. That’s what this was supposed to be about. But yesterday I was at this big religious gathering where all the kind of hot-shots of Pakistan’s religious parties were there. And they were saying that Pakistan was actually created to protect the honor of Prophet Mohammed. Now I’ve lived here all my life. I haven’t grown up in some kind of sheltered community. But I haven’t heard that kind of discourse ever in my life…

CL: How does the Af-Pak war, ongoing, affect the day-to-day outlook of Pakistanis?

MH: Well, I think it has radicalized a section of Pakistani society. It has made a lot of people cynical and anti-American… I think this is probably the first time in the history of the world that a so-called friendly country, the United States, is using robots to kill the citizens of its partner in war. Now whatever logic you might apply, that doesn’t come out nice. It’s never, ever going to sound good to anyone.

There’s an Urdu saying that when your neighbor’s house is on fire, the chances are that fire will get to you as well, [especially] if you as a nation, as a country, have been stoking that fire for 30 years. If you’ve had this attitude towards your neighbor, if you’ve never considered Afghans as human beings, if you only speak of them in military terms, as targets or allies or collateral damage… then Pakistan is going the same route. You can’t create a monster, you can’t create a jihadi group, as the military has in the past, that will exclusively go and kill Indian soldiers in Kashmir, and not do anything else. You can’t create a faction of Taliban whose sole duty it is to go into Afghanistan and fight the Americans. They will do it for a while. They’ve done it for a while. But after that, they will come back and they’ll find other targets. The jihadi groups that initially were supposed to fight in Afghanistan, and then fight in Kashmir and then go and liberate Sweden or whatever country, they’ve finally turned their guns on Pakistanis, sometimes on the Pakistani establishment…

CL: What is it about Pakistan — a dangerous place, a dangerous state of mind — that seems to invite broad satire? I’m thinking of your own Exploding Mangoes and also Salman Rushdie’s Shame and even the Tom Hanks movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” People seem to forget the unfunny truths here.

MH: I grew up in a small city in Punjab, and the traditional form of entertainment there was standing on a street corner, making jokes about current affairs, about political leaders, about the village elder, about the mullah in the mosque – anybody who carried, or thought that he carried, any authority. And it was quite accepted in our culture. So for me, the first insight into how the world is run, how a city is run, how a family works together, I got from the comedy clubs. But I don’t have it in me to be a standup comic. I’m a sit-down comic. I’ll sit down and struggle with myself and maybe compose a joke, or come up with a character that can reflect some of those absurdities…

Pakistan has lots of TV news stations, and suddenly I’ve seen that every single channel has got a political satire show, and those are the shows that are doing really well. Things are so bad that nobody actually wants any more analysis. Nobody wants any more pundits telling them the future because they know it is all downhill. So we might as well sit here and laugh at ourselves.

Mohammed Hanif in Karachi, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Providence, January 11, 2010